It's Time to Wake Up and Stop the Violence: A Response to the Newtown Tragedy

NYAPRS Note: A recent Recovery to Practice Highlight features an excellent article by Oryx Cohen, originally posted on Mad in America( calling for mutual responsibility to end violence and rebuild community. Oryx is a leader in the international consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement and is currently the Director of the National Empowerment Center’s<> Technical Assistance Center. Oryx is co-founder, with Will Hall, of The Freedom Center, an empowerment and advocacy group.


It's Time to Wake Up and Stop the Violence: A Response to the Newtown Tragedy February 21, 2013 by Oryx Cohen, Director, National Empowerment Center’s Technical Assistance Center Recovery to Practice Volume 4, Issue 3, February 21, 2013

Usually when acts of violence that are all too common in the United States occur, I try not to think about it-to focus on the positives and move on quickly. I suppose I am not much different in that respect from many of my fellow Americans. It may be because I am a parent of young children that the recent shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, finally woke me up. This violence has to end-for our sake, for our children's sake, and for humanity's sake.

Who Is to Blame?

It seems every time a terrible act like the one at Sandy Hook occurs, the blame game begins. We blame the individual for having a "mental illness," we blame guns, we blame parents, we blame politicians, we blame the media. Blame, blame, blame. And then we get defensive. I am guilty as charged: I don't want my peer group in the "mental health" world blamed - as much as parents don't want their peer group blamed. The truth is we are all to blame. Every person who makes up this country is to blame for allowing these events to keep happening.

Most people are asking serious questions about guns, and I think rightfully so. A few people are asking serious questions about the use of psychiatric drugs, and I think rightfully so. These are big political issues and the average person may be left feeling a bit hopeless that he or she can do anything to make broad social changes happen.

However, just as we are all to blame, we are all responsible for creating healthier communities to ensure these tragedies do not occur. We have more power than we realize.

I believe there are three simple (although possibly revolutionary) actions we can take to realize our power and stop the violence.

Stop Labeling People

Few people are talking about the effect that labeling or diagnosing others has on the rest of society. I believe this is where the conversation should start. Just because we live in a culture that has hundreds of different ways to categorize people as abnormal-bipolar, oppositional defiant, autistic, etc., does not mean we have to accept it or use that language to describe other people.

Here is what often happens when someone like Adam Lanza is labeled:

A child behaves differently than other children do and it upsets the adults around the child. The child receives a label that "explains" why he or she is different. Instead of reducing stigma, the label actually increases stigma. (The definition of stigma is a "mark" and the label is a way of marking someone as different.) People treat the child differently and stay away from him or her, increasing isolation and the feeling of being different. Oftentimes, the child is the victim of bullying, teasing, and social ostracism. In rare circumstances these children (feeling they are totally detached from the rest of their human family, with nobody to connect with about their strong feelings) do terrible things. To me, these labels are in some ways a more socially and scientifically accepted form of name calling, which is a form of psychological violence. If we can make a conscious choice not to use them in our own lives, it could go a long way toward stopping the violence. How about we approach every person as fully human?

Stop Bullying

It's not surprising that many kids who are victims of bullying end up being in so much pain that they hurt themselves or seek "revenge." We are all responsible for recognizing when bullying is happening and for taking action.

Recent events have made me realize I need to have more conversations with my children about what happens at their preschool. I'm trying my best to be aware if there is a child (my own or another) who is being bullied, teased, and/or ostracized, and to have a conversation about it with my children. As parents, we would like to instill the understanding that it is unacceptable to be mean to another human being, regardless of that person's differences.

It is our responsibility to do something-talk to the teachers, the administrators, have conversations with the children involved-if we discover that bullying is occurring.

Start Reaching Out to Kids Who Are Different

If we open our eyes and hearts, we can clearly see our young people who are different, extremely isolated, or extremely troubled. We know who these kids are in our communities and we need to start reaching out to them-not by saying there is something wrong with them or that they need a diagnosis and treatment, but in a way that embraces their humanity and welcomes them back into our human family.

There are kids at my children's school who are different and perceived as different by other children. I'm sure this occurs at almost every school in the United States. We do our best to remind kids that it is extremely important for them to be nice to everyone and include everyone in their play-to go out of their way to talk to kids who don't have very many friends.

Kids are going to develop their own friendships and "click" better with some peers than others. However, we can probably do a better job of recognizing our many opportunities to include everyone. For example, when our daughter had a large party for her 4th birthday, we decided to invite everyone in her class.

After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I'm trying to be more conscious of ways my community and I can do a better job of reaching out to people (children or adults) who seem to be isolated and struggling. Recently I was playing basketball at an open gym where two young adults definitely fit the description. I was heartened to see the rest of the guys accept them into their group.

One of the young men was particularly talkative and friendly in a way that some might find annoying. Some people might have called him "slow" and I wouldn't be surprised if he had been given some sort of diagnosis. The guys didn't seem to care. Instead of turning their noses up or putting him down in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, they engaged with him as an equal and asked him questions. To them, he was just another guy getting a workout.

The other young man was much quieter and more introverted. His eyes darted back and forth and he seemed very self-conscious. You could tell it was a big deal for him to be there. I was uplifted by the way the guys treated him. They complimented him with "Nice shot!" and "Great hustle out there." And of course, high fives can go a long way.

In my work with the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community, it was an everyday occurrence that people had strong suicidal feelings, heard distressing voices, and/or were going through other extreme experiences. However, because we had such a strong sense of community, with real friendship, access to peer support groups such as Alternatives to Suicide and Hearing Voices, and people who were reaching out to those they hadn't heard from in a while, the amount of violence in our community was impressively low.

As individuals and as a community, we need to increase our outreach and support for people who are being labeled, marginalized, and forced to the fringes of society. We also need to do a better job of reaching out to our communities in general. We need to talk to our neighbors, teachers, and other community members to know what is going on in our social networks. The more connected we are with friends and neighbors, the more we can be aware of those who may need additional support. The hope is that we can all take a few more peeks up from our smartphones and busy lives to establish the direct human-to-human connection necessary for rebuilding our broken communities.

Of course, these strategies apply to older adults too. We don't need to be intrusive about it and we should respect those who truly like to spend a lot of time alone, but I feel it is our responsibility to at least reach out.

Who knows? You might save a life.

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